The ESA is currently operating a scientific mission in space using the Solar Orbiter known as Solo by the team operating it. The spacecraft has been in orbit for a year, having launched on February 10, 2020. Its mission is to image the sun and observe the solar wind while attempting to unravel many lingering mysteries about the solar cycle.
The mission team says that Solo has already taken some of the best images of the sun ever made, showing tiny solar flares called campfires near the surface. One of the more interesting aspects about the design of spacecraft is that it uses a type of prehistoric cave pigment as a coating to withstand the incredible temperatures of up to 520 degrees Celsius generated by the sun.
The mission has entered an exciting phase, with Solo’s orbit currently taking it behind the sun. A few days ago, the apparent angle seen from Earth between the Solar Orbiter and the Sun started to fall below five degrees. This phenomenon is known as “conjunction season” and will last until the middle of February.
During this time, the sun’s energy and unpredictability make it hard for radio antennas on Earth to communicate with the spacecraft because they have to point close to the sun to contact the orbiter. During this time, signals will be unreliable, and data can’t be sent or received at a very high speed. Mission controllers will be able to receive data at about 255 bits per second or send signals at about 7.8 bits per second.
The team also warns that the radio link could be lost entirely if the Sun has any particularly energetic emissions. Mission planners knew this would happen during Solo’s orbit of the sun, and it was planned for. The spacecraft can run its instruments autonomously and store collected data onboard to be sent back to Earth later when it’s able.